Northern Calloway, Sesame Street's David: 1948 to 1990
December 12, 2011 12:42 PM   Subscribe

Between February 1989 and May 1990, there were three significant deaths in the Sesame Street world. The first was Joe Raposo, a significant musician for Sesame Street and Electric Company. The last was Jim Henson, mourned by Big Bird, remembered by Frank Oz, and celebrated in song by many (from the St. John's Memorial, detailed here). The second person to die in this time period was Northern Calloway, Sesame Street's David. Unlike Joe and Jim, there were no television tribute to Northern's life and career on Sesame Street or Broadway. Instead, David, once a young, cool, urban guy, who was studying to be a lawyer while working at Mr. Hooper's storeand the initial romantic interest of Maria, left the show through a letter, read by Gordon. The story behind David is told below the fold.

Born on January 22, 1948, in New York City, Northern grew up in Harlem. He was involved in stage shows through school, attending Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts, where he was a classmate of Sonia Manzano, who would become Maria on Sesame Street. In 1966, two days after graduating from high school, he joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. In 1970, Calloway starred in The Me Nobody Knows, a musical about complex, introspective children in poor neighborhoods of New York City.

Northern and Sonia were hired to Sesame Street around the same time, both appearing in 1971 with four other new human cast members. Northern and Sonia started getting close on the set, so David and Maria became a pair on the show (Google books), creating the first interracial couple on children's television. Northern also had a puppet, Same Sound Brown, a similar character to the former puppet Roosevelt Franklin (previously).

In 1980, while staying with a friend in Nashville, Tennessee, Northern Calloway had a mental breakdown, attacking his friend, then running into the neighborhood with only a t-shirt on, breaking a car window and vandalizing a house. When police found him, he appeared to try to eat grass, and when finally restrained, he shouted "I'm David of Sesame Street and they're trying to kill me." Luckily for Calloway, the story never got much coverage, and he was allowed to return to Sesame Street (Google books). But Calloway was then on lithium for his rarely discussed bipolar disorder, which sedated him, and he put on weight. Around the same period, he was also doing cocaine, making him even less reliable on set. He was still a cast member, but with fewer and smaller parts in the following years.

In the earlier days on Sesame Street, Calloway's character David was studying law while working at Mr. Hooper's store, until Mr. Hooper died (as the actor, Will Lee, died of a heart attack, at the age of 74). The episode was significant for Sesame Street, as it directly addressed death in the context of the children's show (key clips, in order: Intro / Forgetful Jones forgets why he's happy / Fuzzy and Blue (and Orange!), with Grover, Herry, Cookie Monster and Frazzle / Big Bird's "Just Because" Walk / A boy visits the hospital to see his mother's new baby / Big Bird Listens to the Adults / Bert feels sad and angry about losing his paper clips / Big Bird draws his grown-up friends, and comes to terms with death Mr. Hooper's death / end credits). Mr. Hooper left the store to David, who became the full-time caretaker of the store.

Then another in-show dynamic changed. Instead of Maria and David, it was Maria and Luis, and the new couple got married as a season finale in 1988. The next season ends with another big event for Luis and Maria: their first baby (part 2). It was Northern's last season with the show. He disappeared from Sesame Street, written off in the fifth episode of the 21st season, saying goodbye in a letter, as he moved to his grandmother's farm.

In real life, Norther disappeared, too. The cause of his death had not been determinedwhen his short New York times obituary ran, and a story about a struggle with stomach cancer gained some ground. But as noted in the comments of that last link, a more complete history has been put together, as told in Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street (Google books). Held in Stony Lodge Hospital in New York, the police were called on January 9, 1990, to help after Calloway struck a staff physician. "Agitated and troubled," Calloway fought restraint, and when he was finally subdued, he went into a seizure and went to the ground. Two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday, he went into cardiac arrest, and was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. The official report said he died of exhaustive psychosis, more commonly refereed to as excited delirium syndrome (EDS).

He had been a cast member on Sesame Street for 14 years, as marked in numerous clips and appearances on a small collection of Sesame Street records.

More clips:
* It Feels Good When You Sing a Song (circa 1970s)
* Luis and David in the wrong settings (circa 1970s)
* David disco skates around Central Park (circa 1970s)
* Jasper Johnson's J Walk (circa 1970s)
* David gets three wishes, with Maria the genie (1973)
* What's The Name Of That Song? (1974)
* David, Maria, Luis and Bob, dressed as scarecrows, sing a song about the knee, the ankle, and the shoulder (1975)
* Hooper's Store's 25th anniversary (1976)
* Buffy gives Cody a Bath (1977)
* Gimme Five!, with "The Lovers of Five" (consisting of Gordon, Bob, David, and Luis) (1978)
* Oscar & David on a farm (1984)
* Hey Nonny Nonny, with Bob, David and Olivia (1985)
* David the Boxer, and Luis his manager, look for the right gloves (1986)
* Professor David lectures about trees (1988)
* A Tribute to Northern Calloway (David reads The Night Before Christmas, with some changes)

Another two tributes, of sorts:
1. Elmo traded his binky for Baby David, a doll named in memory of Northern Calloway's character.
2. Hell Oh, by Cage, from a free EP from 2009, in which he (Chris Palko) recalls his time at Stony Lodge, and seeing Northern Calloway in the same facility.
posted by filthy light thief (25 comments total) 100 users marked this as a favorite
I always did love that dude. A childhood role model of sorts.

Cool name too. ( Northern , not David. Not that there's anything wrong with David.)
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:48 PM on December 12, 2011

I didn't know that was why Elmo's doll was named David. That's so sweet, and so sad.
posted by pinky at 12:49 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dude, why don't we just hand over the best post trophy to you now? This is epic.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:09 PM on December 12, 2011 [17 favorites]

Um, I actually thought this was a bit short. Fsk, I need to cut back on my next post.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:15 PM on December 12, 2011

Holy cow. I remember him!

Thanks for this post. Epic, indeed.
posted by zarq at 1:23 PM on December 12, 2011

Corrected link: Buffy gives Cody a Bath (YT link, not the above-linked muppet wiki page)
posted by filthy light thief at 1:28 PM on December 12, 2011

Wow, I remember "What's the Name of that Song" from when I was a kid. It's funny, now that you mention him, I remember David, but he'd sort of faded from memory for a long time. Such a tragic end.
posted by LN at 1:33 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Great post! Once when I worked at a yoga studio the guy who played Luis came in to do a Tai Chi class. I couldn't figure out why I felt so excited and choked up by this, because I hadn't even thought about him in about 20 years, and then it occurred to me: this man helped me learn how to read.
posted by hermitosis at 1:34 PM on December 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

I grew up close to Nashville and remember the story of his problems here (I would have been 8, but it's been a clear memory all my life). I know it made me sad at the time, and a lot of people were weirded out by it. Glad to get the full story. Kudos for an awesome post!
posted by pupdog at 1:47 PM on December 12, 2011

Best post. Hands down.

I'm trying to understand his cause of death; did he die just because his brain exploded from the bi-polar? Huh.

Somewhere on YouTube is a clip of his last onscreen appearance; I believe he's on the pay phone with other cast members, hearing the news of the new baby (the part 2 referenced above). He looks a little heavier, but not too much, and his voice is raspy.

He was great at physical comedy, continuing a great vaudeville tradition. My favorite, one of many, was when he kept mixing up the "In" and "Out" doors of the restaurant kitchen (go in on the left is the name of the song, go out on the right and you'll never go wrong / the door on the right is the one that goes in, go out on the left for as neat as a pin...)

And now that will be running through my head all night...
posted by Melismata at 1:52 PM on December 12, 2011

Wow. You turned "This one guy used to be on Sesame Street, but then he had some issues and he left. Then, later, he died" into this incredible post. Well-played! It's so strange how David had faded from my memory until I clicked through those links. Thanks, filthy light thief!
posted by lord_wolf at 2:07 PM on December 12, 2011

Melismata - I'm not 100% clear on the cause of death. It seems to still be a bit shrouded in mystery. Street Gang has the most information I've read on the topic, but it's vague there, too.

As for your favorite clip, it seems the Muppet Wiki folks don't quite know what/when it was, but some recall it clearly.

That same Muppet Wiki talk post points out that the David doll actually appeared while human David was still on the show (1986), so it seems a bit odd to pay tribute to an existing cast member.

Anyway, if anyone wants to read a lot (!!!) more about the history of Sesame Street, Street Gang is detailed and fascinating. I first read about David on a random comment on a prior Sesame Street post, and then found Cage's song in a prior version of Calloway's wikipedia page, then found the book. There are so many interesting side stories in the history of Sesame Street.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:13 PM on December 12, 2011

Thanks, FLT! I remember that song so vividly. And I have perfect pitch, so I even remember the notes! :)
posted by Melismata at 2:18 PM on December 12, 2011

Filthy iPad Thief grrrrr!
posted by timsteil at 3:12 PM on December 12, 2011

I've always been a bit surprised that there wasn't more written about Northern Calloway over the years, because it is such a troubling story and it's not like Sesame Street is exactly chopped liver in the world of television. I read "Street Gang" about a year ago and was disappointed that the book seemed to be more interested in indulging several people in their petty grievances, mostly about Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo), than getting to know the cast members. (The book is also not at all kind to Joe Raposo, by the way)

You've done an excellent job of pulling together more information about Northern Calloway than I think I've ever seen anywhere, FLT. Well done.
posted by briank at 3:34 PM on December 12, 2011

The week Jim Henson died was also the week Dr. Seuss died. That week sucked. I told it to get lost and not come back.
posted by jfuller at 3:37 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every time I'm reminded about Sesame Street as it first began, it strikes me how revolutionary it really was. David was a terrific presence on it, and I'd totally forgotten that he and Maria were a couple first.

Fantastic post.
posted by xingcat at 3:52 PM on December 12, 2011

Thanks for bringing those 70s clips back into my life, filthy light thief. The wonderful thing about Sesame Street is that because of the show's reuse of clips, I had no conscious memory of them, but as soon as several of them began it was like seeing an old friend. I'd totally forgotten about Same Sound Brown! I think David was my favorite of the human characters when I was little - maybe because he came across as younger than some of the others, maybe just because he was such a terrific performer and a delight to watch.

And this reminds me that it's time to watch (and to totally tear up during parts of) Christmas Eve on Sesame Street again, which all you 70s kids will remember. "True Blue Miracle", from that, remains one of my favorite Christmas songs.
posted by jocelmeow at 4:03 PM on December 12, 2011

Thank you for this amazing post. I was a senior in high school when David - er - Northern died and of course I was all "David went crazy, haha, whatever." And then I pretty much forgot about him. (Unlike Mr. Hooper, whom I still get misty over.)

But these clips reminded me about how much I really enjoyed him as a kid growing up in the 70s. He was so fun and full of life. I completely forgot about the super-cool roller skating clip! And the Roosevelt Franklin song!!

on preview: jocelmeow, Keep Christmas with You is my fave from that show. I think I'm about to lose an hour of my life to YouTube.
posted by ladygypsy at 4:13 PM on December 12, 2011

Good god, I haven't heard that "disco bells" version of the Sesame Street song (closing credits) in forever. Watching some of those clips reminds me of how "real" the show was back in the day. (And how much it was like Monty Python for kids, in a way.) (Stupid Elmo, ruining everything.)
posted by gjc at 4:42 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is so incredibly sad. David and Maria were the core human characters of Sesame Street in my childhood and having not watched the show in 30 years, I had no idea he wasn't still on the show much less dead.

There's just enough in the story to make me wonder how much of this was fueled by drugs. Of course I realize there's a lot of bipolar unrelated to drugs but a psychotic break running around naked after beating people and destroying random property in my world is almost always fueled by drugs. Stomach cancer in the U.S., at least nowadays, is usually seen among chronic alcoholics. The thought of one of the personalities from my childhood being destroyed by cocaine and alcohol makes this all the more tragic.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 5:53 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Love, love, love this post. This was the era of Sesame Street that I grew up with, so this brought back lots of memories for me.
posted by SisterHavana at 6:40 PM on December 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is my fave memory of Northern.

"I know who a square is!"
posted by droplet at 6:42 PM on December 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Funny, I was just talking the other day with friends about fine distinctions between people of a certain age, and who ran Mr Hooper's store was one of them. I remember Mr Hooper a bit, but David was in charge for most of my Sesame Street-watching years. I had entirely forgotten about that roller disco clip, but it was one of my favorites on Sesame Street. Thanks for digging it up, filthy light thief.
posted by EvaDestruction at 5:17 AM on December 13, 2011

I may have mentioned this before, but my father and Mr Hooper died the same year. I was a bit old to be watching Sesame Street, but my younger sisters still did, and Mr Hooper was one of my favorites from when I was little. :(

Thank you for the link to the imagining shapes bit, droplet; I loved that too!

Also, been humming "Keep Christmas With You" since yesterday afternoon. Makes me a bit teary, but I may actually be getting some Christmas spirit now.
posted by epersonae at 11:35 AM on December 13, 2011

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